Author: Lawrence Osborne
Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne was an immensely satisfying book to read.
The book is set after 1997 when Han Sen was the Prime Minister of Cambodia. The first part of the book is called Karma, where Robert Grieve, a school teacher from England, drifting around and predictable, has just crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia. He is on his annual holiday. When he wins $2000 in a casino, he decides to enjoy his windfall and postpone his return home.
In Cambodia, Robert is on a tour with Ouksa, his Khmer driver-cum-guide, when he meets Simon Beaucamp, an American who now lives in Cambodia. Ouksa warns Robert against befriending Simon, but Robert is compelled to his own doom. His decision lets loose a chain of events.
Slowly we become aware of an aura of mystery, mystique and even menace surrounding Simon. Simon invites Robert home, drugs him and rips him of his winnings, passport and other effects, giving him, in return, his own clothes and a $100 bill.
Wearing Simon’s clothes, Robert succumbs to the temptation of thinking like his predator. Assuming the identity of Simon, he becomes an English tutor to Sophal, the well-educated daughter of a rich Cambodian doctor, Dr Sar.
The second part, called Dogs and Vultures, takes us to Simon and his girlfriend, Sothea. Dope- and liquor-addled, they are on the run, with Simon pretending to be Robert. Wanting the money they have stolen, Ouksa attacks and kills Simon, but is cheated of the money by corrupt cop Davuth Vichea. Money drives everyone along; for the sake of money, dogs attack wrong doers and are themselves preyed upon by vultures.
In part III, Dharma, we come back to Robert and Sophal. Davuth spreads his net, anxious to make more money. And in Part IV, Hunters in the Dark, we are treated to a delicious sense of inexorability and irony as all the characters, major and minor alike, find themselves trapped by their actions and the circumstances. No one is able to escape retribution for their actions. The hunters become the hunted, and that is all I can say without giving the game away.
There are many commonalities between the characters. Both Simon and Robert have a tendency to drift along, though Robert’s is not apparent. Sothea and Sophal both allow themselves to drift along with the men in their lives, not to mention the similarities in their names. The corruption of cop Davuth Vichea is played out against Simon’s calculatedness. Dr Sar and Davuth have both participated in the horrors and atrocities practiced by the Pol Pot regime. In fact, the horrible legacy of the genocide imbues life in Cambodia, much like a ghostly presence.
Living in Cambodia, both Robert and Simon are swayed by the Cambodian predilection for superstition, for sensing signs and omens, and give way to fatalism.
The pace of the novel picks up remarkably after a point and karma’s wheels plod on relentlessly, riding roughshod over all that get in the way.
The characters are all well etched. The minor characters are equally significant in the scheme of things. Sophal is intuitive, knowing without knowing, guessing the truth about both Robert and Davuth.
When Osborne takes us into Davuth’s home, we get a sense that no man is all bad but that circumstances make him so. He feels compelled to earn money, by any means, for his daughter, just as Ouksa is doing for his crippled wife.
Osborne explores the manner in which barangs (the Khmer word for White Westerners) drift about in Cambodia, escaping the stability of their lives for an easy, unrestricted life here.
The author masterfully creates a lush sense of atmosphere and we become aware of the events that are precipitated by Robert’s acceptance of Simon’s invitation to join him for a drink.
Much of the action or inaction takes place in the dark, at night. The night itself becomes brooding and real, with the creatures that populate it coming alive. In this land of secrets and omens, Osborne’s long descriptions are a trap. They mesmerize us so much that when the surprise ending comes, we are left gasping for air.
The viewpoint is omniscient. Almost the night watching the doings and thoughts of the characters.
The author has a loose, languid way of describing things. We don’t know Robert’s full name until Chapter 4. His first name itself is shoved in unceremoniously after many pages of the pronoun, ‘he,’ and we almost miss it. It seems like a strange way of getting us to know the hero.
The writing is figurative and lush, teeming with sound and colour. The sounds are onomatopoeic. The moon, stars, the frogs and rain, all play their part in highlighting the beauty of the night. The rain lashes on, squelching mud, obscuring the vision, giving everything a desultory air.
The descriptions are beautiful. Initially, they seem almost minimal, but they grow on you. They are not the kind that paint word pictures, but more like the kind that spreads like a stain, throwing light on the scene. They are the sort that you would miss if you were not paying attention to the words, and I wouldn’t recommend missing them. Here the background becomes the foreground.
As for the language, what can I say? How can I describe it without detracting from its sheer poetry? Let me give you just one example: The author describes Cambodia as a country like a water wheel, like a mass of wind chimes.
Okay, just one more example. Vast areas of her being had been snuffed out in a few moments of time, but she was still solid in the mirror.
Reading this book was one fantastic experience.
"I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."